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Singapore's New Leader Promises an Era of Change

Lee Hsien Loong, son of the first premier, says citizen freedoms must continue to grow.

August 13, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

SINGAPORE — Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore's founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew, was inaugurated Thursday as the nation's third prime minister and pledged to continue opening the autocratic country to new personal freedoms.

During an outdoor ceremony at Singapore's Istana presidential palace, Lee was sworn in before a crowd of 1,400 people that included his father, who took the new title of minister mentor, and outgoing Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was named senior minister.

"This political transition is not just a change of prime ministers," the younger Lee said. "It is a generational change for Singapore, a shift to the post-independence generation in a post-Cold War world."

Lee, 52, a Cambridge graduate and retired brigadier general, is described by associates as a man of great intelligence and political skill who is sometimes impatient with those who cannot keep up with his demanding pace. For the last 14 years, he has served as deputy prime minister, more recently adding the posts of finance minister and director of the central bank.

Some credit him with playing a key role in economic reform that has helped the city-state of 4 million recover from the SARS crisis that killed 33 people here last year. The government predicts a surprisingly high growth rate of 8% to 9% this year.

Under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, 80, Singapore became famous as the "nanny state" for its efforts to control most aspects of its citizens' lives. After gaining independence in 1965, the former British colony rapidly developed from a Third World island into a regional commercial hub with a world-class airport, modern highways and high-rise housing for most of its residents.

The elder Lee retired in 1990 and handed the reins to Goh, 63, who many thought would be little more than a seat warmer for Lee Hsien Loong. But the younger Lee, who was treated for lymphoma in 1992, was content to wait his turn.

In recent years under Goh's leadership, there have been hints of liberalization. Citizens are now allowed to chew gum -- with a doctor's prescription -- dance on bar tops and watch television broadcasts of "Sex and the City" -- an edited version.

In his inaugural address, the new prime minister acknowledged that Singapore must relax some government controls, help children learn to think independently and make the nation "open and inclusive."

"We will continue to expand the space which Singaporeans have to live, to laugh, to grow and to be ourselves," he said. "Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different. We should have the confidence to engage in robust debate so as to understand our problems, conceive fresh solutions and open up new spaces."

Even so, change is unlikely to come rapidly. Most of the members of Lee's newly formed Cabinet have served in top government positions for years. And even though more than half the population was born after the country gained independence, there is no effective political opposition -- the ruling People's Action Party controls all but two of the Parliament's seats.

Officials insist that the younger Lee was named prime minister on the basis of merit, not his father's influence. Lee Kuan Yew appeared briefly on the stage with his son during the inaugural ceremony and the two shook hands, but there was little display of emotion, except for a brief smile.

"Planned, orderly transition is what distinguishes Singapore," Goh said in a farewell address Sunday. "In other countries, the politicians exploit the divisive forces in society to get elected and, in the process, pull their countries apart."

The younger Lee's first wife died in 1982. He married his current wife, Ho Ching, in 1985. She now heads the government's powerful investment arm, Temasek Holdings, which owns major shares of some of Singapore's largest companies, including Singapore Airlines and Singapore Telecommunications. Lee's younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, is chief executive of the telecom company.

It remains to be seen whether Singaporeans will warm to the idea of another Lee in office. In a speech last year, Goh suggested that his then-deputy should loosen up.

"Some Singaporeans are uncomfortable with Loong's leadership style," he said. "Loong's public persona is that of a no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough minister.... Singaporeans would like Loong to be more approachable."

In his inaugural speech, Lee offered a vision of a Singapore that is a cosmopolitan, multiracial society and a haven in an uncertain world.

"We may be a small island, but we are a global city linked to the whole world, offering exciting opportunities and experiences," he said. "Let us be a dynamic city that is open and inclusive, a meritocratic society that is compassionate and caring, and a confident people with clear minds and warm hearts."

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